IHI 2018: How one pediatrician found herself at the center of Flint’s water crisis 

Welcome to Michigan sign
A doctor shares how she brought the severity of the Flint water crisis into focus. (getty/benkrut)

ORLANDO, Fla.—Pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, M.D., knows a thing or two about being told to stay in her lane. 

When the physician at Hurley Children’s Hospital in Flint, Michigan, was lauded by public health officials for putting out the research that revealed children living in the city had elevated levels of lead in their blood as a result of the region’s contaminated water, political figures chastised her for stepping outside a physician’s typical role.   

“I went into healthcare and pediatrics not just to treat ear infections but to treat injustices and inequalities,” said Hanna-Attisha, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Michigan State University.

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Hanna-Attisha was one of dozens of speakers at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s National Forum on Quality Improvement in Healthcare and a panelist in a session featuring women who are leading the charge on advocating for issues of social justice. It's gained increased interest in recent months as more physicians have begun pushing for research and action to prevent gunshot injuries, pushing back in a Twitter campaign against the NRA after it told them to stay in their lane.

Mona Hatta-Attisha
Mona Hanna-Attisha (MSU)

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Hanna-Attisha said when she learned of how corrosive the water was in Flint, she reached out to the state health department to look further into the blood lead levels of children in the city but was stonewalled. So instead, she dove into data from Hurley’s electronic health record to build the study. 

She found that the number of children in Flint with elevated levels of lead in their blood doubled once the water was switched. She said when she was criticized for publicizing this information and declaring Flint’s contaminated water a disaster, she almost regretted the decision. But she said her perspective changed when she decided to rethink how she views data. 

“I quickly realized that this had nothing to do with me but everything to do with my kids, and that every number in my research, in my evidence was not a number—it was a child,” Hanna-Attisha said, “and it was a child that I had probably cared for in the last year or so. It was those kids that gave me the courage to fight back.”  

RELATED: EHR helps hospital identify lead problem in Michigan 

Hanna-Attisha said she shares her story and the story of Flint because physicians need to realize that they can, and should, play a key role in social justice—even if that’s not something they traditionally wade into. Physicians have a front-line look at how socioeconomic factors, like Flint’s water, impact their patients and thus make an effective conduit for change. Pushing through the fear of speaking out or stepping out of line can have a huge impact, she said. 

“We all implicitly took that oath, no matter who we are or what we do,” Hanna-Attisha said. “It is our very civic and human responsibility.”

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